Robot research vessel to set off on epic ocean voyage of discovery

Faye Kyzer

On the 400th anniversary of the start of an epic voyage from England to the New World aboard the Mayflower, an autonomous, solar-powered marine research vessel is due to launch on a mission to gather environmental data about the ocean.

Two years in the making, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship sets off from Plymouth in Devon today on six months of sea trials ahead of an Atlantic crossing attempt next year, a voyage based on the route taken by the Pilgrims in 1620.

As its moniker suggests, there will be no human captain at the helm, but an artificial intelligence navigation system developed by MarineAI and based on technologies from computing giant IBM. This AI Captain makes use of data from onboard radar, GPS, AIS, nautical charts, attitude sensors, a fathometer, a vehicle management system and weather data from The Weather Company.

“Able to scan the horizon for possible hazards, make informed decisions and change its course based on a fusion of live data, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship has more in common with a modern bank than its 17th century namesake,” said IBM’s Andy Stanford-Clark. “With its ability to keep running in the face of the most challenging conditions, this small ship is a microcosm for every aspiring 21st century business.”

The AI Captain in control of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship was developed by MarineAI
The AI Captain in control of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship was developed by MarineAI


The trimaran is 15 meters (49.2 ft) in length, 6.2 m (20.3 ft) wide and weighs in at 4,535 kg (5 tons), about half the length and less than 3 percent of the weight of the original Mayflower. The project is a collaboration between IBM and ocean research non-profit ProMare (which will coordinate the scientific studies), along with a worldwide consortium of partners – including Thales, Nvidia, the University of Plymouth and Aluship.

Its navigation system is made up of GNSS, IMUs, radar, SATCOM, AIS and a weather station. There are six AI-powered cameras, over 30 onboard sensors, four (or more) Intel-based computers, as well as another four (or more) custom systems, six Jetson AGX Xavier modules, two Jetson Xavier NX modules and IBM Power Systems. It can also accommodate 700 kg (1,543 lb) of equipment, too.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship’s solar-powered hybrid electric propulsion system comprises dual 20-kW permanent magnet motors and banks of lithium-iron-phosphate batteries, and is reported capable of getting the craft up to a top speed of 10 knots (11.5 mph/18.5 km/h).

Cross section of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, showing the 15 edge computing systems, the
Cross section of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, showing the 15 edge computing systems, the autonomous navigation system, the battery banks and the electric propulsion system


In addition to the launch of the autonomous research vessel, IBM and ProMare have also announced the MAS400 portal, which will provide real-time updates on the ship’s whereabouts, information on environmental conditions and data from its research projects.

The online portal is home to a “seven-armed stowaway chatbot called Artie that’s powered by IBM’s Watson Assistant technology, which has the job of providing information to visitors on the ship and its voyage.

“ is one of the most advanced ocean mission web portals ever built,” the project’s Scientific Director Fredrik Soreide said. “Protecting the ocean depends on our ability to engage the public in important matters affecting its health. This MAS400 portal is designed to do exactly that and tell people where the ship is, what speed it’s traveling at, what conditions it’s operating in and what science we are conducting. Users can even help Artie the Octopus fish out surgical masks, cigarette butts and other increasingly common forms of ocean litter from a virtual ocean of facts and data.”

Source: IBM

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